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What does the concept of Portal mean to you?

By jaf, Section Ask Anything
Posted on Wed Jun 5th, 2002 at 10:13:13 AM EST
Portal, portal, portal. I don't remember the last time I had a conversation about library technology that didn't include the dreaded 'p' word. The thing is, what is a portal? And more specifically, what is a library portal? (And how does a library portal differ from a library gateway? ;-)) Read more to hear my thoughts on the matter - but more importantly, what are other people's thoughts as to what portals are or should be?


To me, a portal is a user-customizable interface that provides the user with the information most important and relevant to them. By customizable, I mean that the user can decide what sorts of information appear on their "portal page", and where they appear. It may also include things such as custom colors, fonts, etc., but these aren't primary to the concept.

In my mind, the customization bit is really what differs a portal from a gateway - a gateway is a static presentation of information, a portal a dynamic one. A library portal might include the ability to provide updates on materials that a library receives pertaining to a user-defined set of subject terms (or authors, or publishers), or information about due dates of checked-out materials, or notifications when materials a user is waiting for get checked in. It can be an access point for doing all sort of research and full-text retrieval, as well as a starting point for journeying on the web. It can provide a user their favorite reference works, as well as links to their favorite comic strips. In essense, a portal is a front end to the world of information - but it is only a front end. A portal in and of itself doesn't create information - it only organizes it. The cool thing about a portal is that it can organize information differently, for each user, in the way they see fit - not the way we see fit for them. That's my concept of a portal.
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What does the concept of Portal mean to you? | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 editorial, 0 pending) | Post A Comment
Indeed. (none / 0) (#1)
by dchud on Thu Jun 6th, 2002 at 02:38:17 PM EST
(User Info) http://curtis.med.yale.edu/dchud

Funny, we were just having this conversation here the other day, and your def'n is very close to what we figured it meant too. Clearly there's a lot of sexiness in the one-stop shopping model we've all grown used to, so much praise to those institutions and individuals who've been able to usefully build and deliver services like what you've described.

Looking at the hype-to-payoff ratio (which is high), though, it seems that many such efforts are likely to stumble because of the support mismatches... reaching the best potential value in combining user access to diverse services for any given organization requires an immense amount of cooperation and communication between the various units supporting the various backend systems involved (who probably aren't used to accepting requirements from each other!). So in places where portals have been made to work well, there's probably at least one strong leader behind the effort with just enough clout across a campus to mandate a certain quality standard or get it done right themselves. Such leaders, however, don't grow on trees.

Come to think of it, though, that sounds like something I might have read, or might have heard ELM say... apologies if so. :\

In any case, such leaders and success stories, where they have occurred, are also naturally fragile because the leader-types are likely to be moved closer to applications involving money or otherwise higher-paying jobs. And the increasing entropy of the unified access to a diversity of backend systems is likely to stay expensive to maintain.

So I'd guess that unless you've got a clear mandate, a clear quality target, people who can get it done, and a shared vision of all three among those supporting the systems involved, it seems unlikely that even the better portal implementations are sustainable for very long. Which, along with the likelihood that people prefer interacting directly with separate systems whose interfaces are improved and optimized according to their own diverse objectives over time, might explain why we haven't seen too many great ones... yet.

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Portals & Dangerous Space (none / 0) (#2)
by art on Mon Jun 10th, 2002 at 07:20:56 AM EST
(User Info) http://www.uwindsor.ca/library/leddy/people/art

Portals seem to play in the same sort of space that was once occupied by push technologies and intelligent agents. Great ideas, but ones that have to be done extremely well and meet the web's absolute requirement that any service be extremely easy to interact with. I can't find the URL but the statistics on portal sites, at least the MyYahoo kinds of sites, are pretty gruesome. In part, I think this raises issues about digital identities, assigning people usernames and passwords starts to break down at some point, especially when your browser's password manager steps in and ensures that you will go so long without typing a password that you will never remember it when you change machines. Plus, as Dan points out, "one stop" shopping is a great concept, but it is extremely hard to bring to fruition, especially in a campus setting. Library systems leave most university administrative systems in the dust when it comes to connectivity functions, trying to bring the Registar's system in line with the library, for example, can be an almost impossible challenge.

Even the big portals can't really deliver a "one stop" model. For example, MyYahoo can't give me the headlines from The New Glasgow Evening News, I have to go to a different portal for it. RSS feeds to your own portal manager might be a better approach, though there is some middle ground here. I like the way that TV sites like Fox do a reverse lookup on your IP or have you type in a Zip/Postal Code to give you listings for your area. Maybe what we need is a portal "button" on the browser instead of endless "My..." sites so that you could establish an identity once and see the portal view of the web as you travel about.

If only bookmark managers had an established format for moving information between desktops, and could negotiate things like RSS feeds automatically, portals would not have to be specific sites but rather XML-based formats feed to your browser on demand. Zope has a bit of the database-based bookmark functionality, and Mozilla lets you do a lot with bookmarks as data sources, but this is one area where browsers haven't changed much since 1993. Mosaic started out with support for annotations and annotation servers so in some ways things have been stalled on this front.

Anyway, I share the sense that "portal" is a dreaded word in a meeting. Whatever it is, a portal seems to function as an almost magical concept that will clean up any ambiguity left floating around from any gathering on web-related topics.

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